Kyrgyz Language

Should “small” languages be preserved?

Yesterday was National Kyrgyz Language Day and I couldn’t have felt more out of place. I had agreed over the weekend to show up for a recording for a show on foreigners who speak Kyrgyz and instead found myself on live television, sharing the stage with a host and 5 other Kyrgyz gentlemen—fathers of the Kyrgyz Republic.

I was the little kid brother to a 6th grader. A peon to the president. A proletariat to an aristocrat. I was a strange, thirty-year old foreigner in a purple checkered shirt and Adidas tennis shoes among congressmen, professors and those who have written Kyrgyz history with pens dipped in the sweat of their brows and the blood of their struggle. Let’s just say I felt…inadequate.

IMG_1290Public Teleradio Corporation (Коомдук Телерадиоберүү Корпорациясы)

Why I was on this show is beyond me. I was told there would be other foreigners there and that we would be briefed on simple questions like, “Why are you learning Kyrgyz? Is it hard? Do you like puppies? Here’s a piece of candy…” The host’s first question was something along the lines of, “Dear gentleman so-and-so, you were the one in congress who pushed for the recognition of the Kyrgyz language in the Soviet Republic of Kirgizia back in the late 1980s. Could you tell us a little about the history of that historic vote?”

We were told this would go on for an hour and now I was really nervous—how many questions was the host going to ask me? How was I going to understand the question, much less be able to put together a string of coherent thought cogently processed and well reflected given the diverse and nuanced point of views on the usage of the Kyrgyz language in today’s culture and society?

What ended up happening was the host asked me a question, I ignored it and then rattled off every piece of Kyrgyz that was anywhere near the front of my brain to tens of thousands of people tuned in to watch this talking head make a blunder on live, national television.

Basically I just talked about how I studied and learned Kyrgyz and gave some advice, but I also added that I thought both Kyrgyz and Russian are important for people to know. In some places, mainly small villages, students speak almost entirely in Kyrgyz and practice Russian very little. Then when they come up to the capital to attend colleges and universities, they really struggle because they don’t have a strong academic command of the Russian language. In order to function in the top tiers of Kyrgyz academia, business and society in general, you really need to know both.

That was about all I had time to say. I had been worried about the whole hour long thing, but luckily I was on stage with several senior gentlemen who also happened to be very opinionated and so that quickly ate up the time. (The first question above took over ten minutes to answer just by itself since we were receiving a minute-by-minute replay of the vote in congress from the distinguished gentleman on my right.)

IMG_1285I missed the memo on wearing a kalpak

The discussion never really got to anything truly controversial or interesting. Basically they just said Kyrgyz culture and mentality is best preserved through the language. That in order to best understand and preserve a culture, the language must first be preserved. Others added that since this was Kyrgyzstan, populated mainly by ethnically Kyrgyz people, the language should be the main operating language of the land.

I agree with this but thinking about it afterwards, I wish I had asked some questions like, “How do you ensure that everyone learns Kyrgyz, especially when Russian is already the operating language?” The world today is so interconnected that it makes little sense to huddle up with a small language almost no one outside of these borders understands. I’m all for preserving Kyrgyz and yes it is useful for those living here, but we can’t deny that Kyrgyzstan—like any nation in the world—is dependent upon relationships with surrounding countries near and far. If we are going to preserve Kyrgyz, let’s also push for fluency in Russian and English. English is the language of the world—you can go to China and speak English. You can go to Argentina and speak English. It’s a transferrable skill that offers immediate benefits in business, tourism, and education and the sciences, all areas that Kyrgyzstan needs so desperately to improve.

After what seemed like hours, the minute hand on the clock hit one revolution and the “live” light went dark. I was completely soaked on every limb of my body except for my mouth which felt like it had been lined with sandpaper and then filled with sand. I performed the perfunctory handshakes and cell phone pictures, received my little gift folder for being on the show and scooted out into the afternoon air.

IMG_1292Gift package including a Russian-Kyrgyz medical dictionary

I may not have had the time or language to get into a deep discussion at the studio, but maybe we could chat here if you have some thoughts to add? How important is it to preserve languages spoken by very few people? Does it make sense to require all people in a nation to speak one mutual tongue? What direction is Kyrgyzstan going? And what part should the English language play here?

The meaning of the word ‘Kokustuk’ so entertainingly told by my host brother

I happen to think blini served with peanut butter and honey is the next best delicious thing to gretchka served with peanut butter and honey. I texted thusly to Akmoor and she responded, “Kokustuk.” I had heard “kokusunan” which means suddenly, but I wasn’t totally sure what this meant, so I asked my host brother who happened to be in the kitchen making the blinis. (And he’s a darn-tootin’ good cook for 15 years young.)

IMG_1199The man flips a mean blini

My host bro said (and this was all in English):

Host bro: “If your parents come home and you with your girlfriend, this is ‘kokustuk.’ Ahh…if, if you go to konok (guest) and your baipak (socks) are not good, this is ‘kokustuk.’

Me: Ah–holes? Haha, ok.

Host bro: “And, ok, if you, for example, your girlfriend’s name is Aigerim—just for example—and you are walking in park with her, and you say, ‘I love you Jyldyz!!’ this is, oh, this is very kokustuk! And you go home and (makes sleeping sound) no—you—(motions wrapping noose around ones own neck)—yes, this is kokustuk…”

Me: (Dying with laughter.)

It was quite entertaining, and I think I get the sense of the word, but I’m still not sure why my girlfriend thought eating a blini with peanut butter and honey is ‘kokustuk.’ It was surprising? Shameful? It makes her want to die thinking someone she knows puts peanut butter on blinis? I should be eating these in the dark and disassociating myself from any recognition of said Akmoor while she’s in the same room? At any rate, you can be sure what word just got added to this guy’s daily vocab for the next week.

IMG_1202Forget PB&J — the PB&H is the real deal


The usefulness of being able to communicate with another 0.06% of the world’s population

I speak Kyrgyz. Or, at least strange sounding syllables spill from my mouth that occasionally result in shared meaning. It might be the gestures though. It’s amazing the number of things you can get by simply pointing and grunting.

They say if you learn Chinese you can instantly communicate with another 1.3 billion people. The only catch is they’re all in China. (Well, if we’re speaking percentages, mostly anyway.) There’s nothing wrong with China, but you have to have pretty specific business to make the language knowledge worth it. Now take Kyrgyz. We’re talking 5 million, tops. You have to have a very specific reason to use that long term, like marrying a Kyrgyz person or being locked in a Kyrgyz prison for drug trafficking.

From the beginning I only had two goals for my Peace Corps service: make friends and learn the language. These come slowly for me and especially the language half – I have to study the same things over and over again until they stick. Yet, I’ve never regretted a single moment spent studying. Despite the persistent question of future usefulness, I guarantee you that every little thing I learn now is immediately beneficial. And learning the language helps make huge strides with making friends, too.

And that’s why I spend the hours and the energy, and soak in the sweat that drips from concentration and embarrassment alike. I do this to make my time effective, to make my time worth it and to grow these relationships. The Kyrgyz might only be one tiny fraction of the world, but they’re the whole world to me.

imageA lesson in vowel-harmony zen from Bakyt-Baike, our fearless tutor